Tuesday, January 4, 2011


Sitting in the big classroom watching Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho on the SmartBoard. Part of my duties as advisor to the school's Horror Movie Club.

Just to set the scene: Janet Leigh just checked into the Bates Motel. Norman and Mom are having their first audible argument. I find it very hard to believe none of the boys in the room are commenting on Ms. Leigh's ironclad foundational garments. Perhaps they saved those comments for when I was briefly out of the room a few minutes.

Frankly, I'm surprised the kids picked this movie. The last one they brought in was "Dead Snow", a Norwegian "ubersplatter" film about Nazi zombies protecting a cache of stolen gold (!) that, truth be told, even had me yukking it up even while laboring through the usual bottomless pile of ungraded homework. Before that, it was "30 days of Night," a vampire flick set (creatively, I might add) in Alaska.

Long story short, the kids have decent taste. Why they decided to watch a film most would classify under "suspense" instead of "horror" is beyond me, however. 

Anyway, I didn't seek out the advisorship of the Horror Movie Club; it was thrust on me. That's largely because the nerds who founded the club, first as a series of overly-gory posters composed in art class and then finally as an actual DVD someone actually remembered to bring to school, must have seen me a kindred nerd spirit. I am an algebra teacher, after all. 

Although advising the club cuts into what limited free time I have, I've taken to the post. Nerds need support in any school, but they especially need it in an inner city school, where the basic adolescent need to project a tough outward exterior pushes the equally powerful need to geek out over creepy movies, anime or whatever kids happen to geek out about today deep into the closet.

Also, there's my own status as a wannabe film director. Last spring the kids filmed a test scene of a horror movie concept Sam, the group's ring leader, wrote. I have to admit, it was tough standing back, watching the rookie mistakes pile up, but the episode drove home the importance of making said mistakes. After all, they've got the passion. The worst thing anybody could do is step in and dampen it down with a bunch or rules.

OK, just got past the shower scene. None of the (2) girls showed up today, so I have to give the 4 boys who did extra credit for keeping the MST3K-style commentary relatively clean. What commentary I am hearing is pretty funny, I have to admit. It's a nice fringe-benefit that, alas, I can only slightly acknowledge lest I let the atmosphere get a little too light. Hard to believe that not one of these kids is in the honors track.

Final note: The kids are all agreeing that Anthony Perkins and I bear a pretty strong resemblance. Maybe it's because we're both middle aged white guys. Then again, maybe it's something I can use to my advantage in class someday.

I Hate it When That Happens

Sixth Period Student: Mister, I have an absence note from my Mom for yesterday. 

Me: You were absent yesterday?

Student: Yeah.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Eve^2

Today's Lesson
All Periods: "What do I need to know to answer the question?"

The day before the Christmas break is one of those ordeals that reinforces the whole ed-school concept of a classrom "social contract, meaning that, if the kids don't want to work, no amount of screaming and yelling will make them do so. Sure, you'll get the 1 or 2 eager-to-please types to fall into line, but after a while, you realize you're doing more damage than good to your rep, especially when you have to deal with the same set of students the first Monday after the break.  

Anyway, that's how it started this morning. I hit the first group at the door with my demands and conditions and got merely adequate compliance as a result. I was a little more chill with the next group and got even better compliance, so there was the day's lesson on my end at least.

My last three classes are staffed with upperclassmen which means I was dealing with 4, 3 and then finally 2 students, one of whom got up to go to the bathroom and never returned. Rather than get pissed off or lose emotional steam, I used the time to catch up on my attendance and monitor the working students' activity. Long story short, out of the 7 kids too lazy to cut class, at least 6 got something decent (at least in terms of mathematics) out of the experience.

As for the 7th, I practically stepped on an overlooked dime bag of pot in my classroom doorway as I was heading out of my last class, so maybe he was in a rush to get out and get the holidays started. I contemplated stapling it up in the break room bulletin with a "open only in case of emergency" note attached, but figured that might be a dodgy move given the fact that kids are in and out of the break room as much as the teachers. Instead, I threw it on the boss's desk with a joking "Merry Christmas" and a quick explanation as to how it turned up.

"It'll be interesting to see who comes back to report it missing," the boss said.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Today's Lessons:
Third and Fourth Period -- consecutive number problems
Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth -- relative error/percent change problems.

Wednesday is a short day at my school. The year before I came on board (2007), the faculty voted to establish a common professional development period at the start of each Wednesday. Under the prior arrangement, I'm told, you had the teachers working the 3-10 (period) track meet in the morning before their first class and the teachers working the 1-8 track meeting at the end of the day after their last class. Such a schedule, while leaving the school day intact for the kids, created a complexity nightmare for the administration when it came to getting news and information out to the faculty.

Anyway, the new schedule reduces each Wednesday period from 50 minutes to 35 minutes. For the most part, people seem OK with it. The ones who do bitch and moan about not having enough time to get things done on Wednesday are the ones who tend to bitch and moan about anything. All I really know is that the last time they put it up for a vote -- last year -- the faculty overwhelmingly decided to keep the short-Wednesday schedule

Anyway, I happen to like Wednesdays if only for the fact it breaks up the weekly routine and it forces me to break away from the warmup-lecture-exercises teaching model that, no matter how much I try to avoid it, seems to pull me back into its comfortable grip, especially when I find myself perilously short of ideas and/or prep time. Compared to a 90 or even 45 minute period, 35 minutes is a mere eyeblink. From a mathematical perspective, you've got just enough time to introduce a compelling problem or two and then make sure everybody gets a fair shot to work it out. If you keep your energy up, you can move desk to desk, making on the fly observations, answering panicked questions, rescuing the clueless, bawling out the lazy and when it's all done, and the bell sounds, you retreat to a neutral corner for the next group.  

Stick and move, stick and move, as they say. 

In general, the kids respond well to the increased tempo -- just so long as you don't go to the well too many times. A few weeks back, the work on Wednesday went so smoothly -- almost every kid in the room gave me something decent -- that I decided to go with the same exact teaching strategy on Thursday. Sure enough, the plan backfired after two or three periods, an indicator that I myself was probably getting bored with the approach and projecting that boredom onto the kids.

Which is the point of this post: following routine has never been a strong suit of mine. That seems like a fairly innocent thing to admit, except that, when you're a teacher, routine can be very, very powerful ally. In fact, if I could boil the first five years of teaching down into a single sentence it would be: Learn to love routine.

Not that I follow that advice, but my transition from novice to semi-experienced teacher neatly correlates with my increasing attention to routine. At times when I find things crashing out of control, a few minutes of thoughtful reflection leads me to the inevitable observation that I haven't been following my well-established routines. It could be something as dumb as handing out an assignment from the right side of the class instead of the left. Whatever it is, the kids lose track of where they need to be in the classroom and the next thing you know we're all getting majorly pissed off at each others' incompetence.

Put a little more simply: Routine is a form of non-verbal communication. When you find yourself using your voice way too much, repeating yourself ten million times just to get students to use a pencil instead of a pen, say, you know you're breaking away from routine. Conversely, when you find kids doing stuff you didn't even ask them to do, you know you did something right in terms of setting up the classroom routine.

Anyway, I bring this up only to note that certain elements of my daily routine have been falling apart this week. For example, today I went to pick up my 3rd period attendance folder from the attendance office only to find out I never returned the folder the day before. How the hell did that happen? I wondered to myself, seeing as how turning in the green 3rd period folder is my excuse to go downstairs to check the mailbox and do other routine tasks. Then I remembered: I'd walked past the attendance office yesterday, forcing myself to double-back (routine break No. 1) and I'd given a test to my Third and Fourth periods (routine break No. 2). As a result, I hit my fifth period break without the usual pile of student work samples to review (routine break No. 3). Sure enough, with my own non-verbal cues to head downstairs, I totally blanked out when it came to turning in attendance, thus putting myself in hot water with the attendance ladies this morning. To make matters worse, I also forgot to sign the attendance sheet during our faculty meeting (which, although basically a faculty party on this, the last Wednesday before Christmas, is still an event demanding mandatory attendance).

Which is basically a long way of saying I've been feeling a little punchy lately. I'm sure it'll pass, seeing as how most of it boils down to holiday distractions and dwindling sleep reserves. Still, it only helps to add to the awkward feeling that creeps in during the last 2 or 3 days when the first thing the kids say when they cross the threshold of your room is "Hey Mr., do we have to work today?"

Speaking of...I said I'd give a follow up on my decision whether to finish yesterday's worksheet handed out to the sixth, seventh and eighth period classes. Ultimately, I decided to keep it simple and stick with the existing assignment. Apart from limited prep time and (paper), my ultimate justification was the fact that I'd done a pretty good job structuring the assignment so that every kid still had a meaty problem or two left to tackle (I'm fighting off the shopworn term "differentiated instruction" on the off chance that I'm talking to more than just an audience of teachers). As a result, I was able to move desk-to-desk, as per my usual Wednesday pattern, keeping the brains and pens moving. To keep kids from getting too listless, I also passed back the latest tests, making sure to dish out as many loud compliments as possible in the hopes that it would spur additional work. Sure enough, it did -- a case where breaking from the usual routine (passing out tests at the end of the period and keeping the results hush hush) actually paid off.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Amok Time

Today's Lesson Menu

3rd and 4th Period (Test)

6th, 7th, 8th...comparing relative error to percent change.

OK, so it's generally accepted within the math faculty that teaching any sort of lesson the week before Christmas is an utter fool's errand, but surprisingly enough, I've found the kids fairly receptive to some honest-to-goodness lecture-type instruction. We'll see how long it lasts. One thing that makes teaching more frustrating than you initially anticipated is how quickly the kids adapt and overcome your latest winning classroom management tactic.

In other words, a guy can only go to the well so many times before he gets the bucket dumped back on his head. With tomorrow being a short day, I have an automatic excuse (if not incentive) to shift course. And yet things went so well that I'm tempted to spend the whole period tomorrow finishing up the worksheet I handed out with only 10 minutes to spare today.
Decisions, decisions. I'll have to use this space to report back the outcome.

Anyway, part of what made the day easier than expected is that I had the freshmen pinned down with a test. At least, that's the way each class started. Test days have been crazier than normal days in my fourth period class, and today continued the trend. I don't know if it's test-phobia or if I'm just making the tests too inaccessible. Whatever it is, I doubt I had more than 40 percent of the room taking the test seriously. When it gets to be like that, I find myself all but sitting down alongside the worst students and helping them solve the problems step by step.

If the preceding sentence makes the reader gasp, perhaps I need to get my philosophy out front and center: I'm not opposed to any sort of intervention that helps a kid learn; sometimes test day is the only time you're guaranteed any level of meaningful attention from a kid. My only real concern is that, once I start talking to one kid other kids start begging for help, which I feel it's only fair to offer. Either that, or the kids suddenly feel authorized to talk among themselves, which, again, I don't mind so much except for the fact that it raises the noise level of the room to the point that you've got a handout exercise instead of a test.

Which is kind of the point of here...When you get below a certain learning level the whole notion of a pen and paper test serving as a meaningful form of assessment becomes yet another one of those little lies that makes educational system feel hollow to the core.

Rather than confirm a kid's overall weakness in math, I'd prefer to be like the weightlifting partner, slipping two fingers under the bar to make sure the kid pulls off at least one decent bench press. At the very least, I'll know that the answer on the page came from working with me, as opposed to copying the next kid's (equally incorrect) answer.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Natalis Invictus Soli

Tonight marks the winter solstice. Were I a better prepared teacher I would have a lesson prepared for it. Same with lunar eclipse.

As it stands, I think I'll just take pleasure in the fact that we are finally turning back over into longer days and shorter nights.

That's a big thing for me, being a transplanted west coast boy. If the kids had their way, I'd teach with the blinds drawn all five periods. Because I tend to go a bit mental without my daily dose of sunlight, however, I'm the one teacher in the building, it seems, who teaches with the blinds up. Indeed, one of the many minor causes of agita for me this year was a mid-September decision to put my "concept" wall to a pair of 15 foot blinds we have in Room 340. It seemed like a genius move at first, but now that the number of index cards showing key words and matching concepts has crept past the 5 foot mark, I'm forced to raise (i.e. lengthen) the blinds, thus cutting off what limited sunlight isn't already blocked by the dual air-conditioners on that side of the room.

Oh well, I still get a good share of sunlight coming in through the back windows. It's NYC sunlight, reflected off half a dozen concrete walls and steel implements with a soul-shattering view of... Jersey City, but I'll take it nonetheless.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Trench Periscope

Changing the title and purpose of this vanity blog to get a jump on my 2011 New Years resolution (daily writing). 

The title is inspired by a recent re-reading of the Robert Graves autobiography "Good Bye to All That" which has revived many of the intriguing parallels between serving in the trenches in World War and serving in the "trenches" of American public school education nearly a century later. Granted, my line of work (education) offers fewer chances of shrapnel injury, but the overall notion of victory through attrition seems to get at the very heart of what a teacher does.

Anyway, with that in mind, I decided to break the inertia and get this blog restarted under a more metaphorical title. 

More on Graves when I get his autobiography in front of me.